Saab, which stands for Svenska Aeroplan AB, was founded in 1937 to make aircraft for the Swedish air force. After World War II, their military contracts stopped paying the bills, so Saab turned to automobiles instead.
When early models proved quite capable in European road rallies, Saab decided to try producing sports cars. A prototype emerged in 1956, but it was plagued by problems. A full decade later, Saab revived the concept, creating 1966’s Saab Sonett II. The styling was sleek and squat, but the engine was an outdated two-cylinder. As a sports car, it met with very limited success, and was discontinued to make room for the next attempt.
1970 saw the Saab Sonett III, which traded in its two-cylinder for a four-cylinder engine, and fleshed out the body a bit, giving the car less of a stunted look than its forerunner. It still wasn’t much better performance-wise than the Sonett II, and Saab eventually abandoned the idea of sports cars altogether.
In this article, you’ll learn more about what made these Saabs tick. With car profiles and pictures, you’ll find out that looks aren’t everything, along with a bit of Saab’s history.
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Saab Sonett II
The story of the Sonett II is the story of Saab itself. The name SAAB stands for Svenska Aeroplan AB, which, as you might guess, was founded to build aircraft for the Swedish air force. That was in 1937. When military orders dried up in the wake of World War II, the firm decided to bolster its business with a very different product: automobiles.
What emerged was a streamlined but dumpy-looking little fastback sedan with front-wheel drive (a postwar pioneer in this respect) and a German DKW-inspired two-stroke twin for power. It went on sale in 1949 as the Saab 92. (Like Porsche’s, Saab projects have numbers, be they cars or airplanes.) Later models had three-cylinder two-strokes, but remained two-door sedans or three-door station wagons.
Humble they may have been, but these early Saabs proved quite worthy: solid, reliable, and able to cope easily with the harsh Swedish winters for which they were designed. Not surprisingly, they began to do well in European rallying, so the idea of a sporting model wasn’t as far-fetched as it might have seemed.
Saab’s first move in this direction was the Sonett I of 1956-57, a fiberglass-bodied two-seat roadster based on standard production components. Only a handful were built though, all essentially prototypes, and the company wouldn’t try again until 10 years later.
This second effort was somewhat more successful. Internally designated Saab 97 and sold as the Sonett II, it employed rather modest coupe bodywork, again of fiberglass, over the floorpan and running gear of the latest Saab 96 Monte Carlo sedan. That meant a 60-horsepower 841-cc two-stroke three, front drive, front disc brakes, and a 4-speed manual transaxle with Saab’s usual column-shift control. Styling was smooth if a bit odd, with a long, pointy front, prominent hood bulge, fixed compound-curve backlight, and abbreviated tail. The design came from Malmo Aircraft Industry (MFI), while bodies were initially built by the Swedish Railway Works (ASJ) in Arlov, many miles from any other Saab production facility. As on the Austin-Healey Sprite and Jaguar E-Type (see entries), hood and front fenders were a single-hinged unit.
Like other Saabs, the Sonett II didn’t have much performance at first. The two-stroke three had reached the end of its development by the time sales began in 1966, and was hard pressed to cope with a 1565-pound curb weight. So although handling and durability were of a high order, only 60 Sonnetts were built that first year, followed by 455 in 1967.
That was no way to make money, so the 1968 model received the same engine transplant applied to other Saabs that season: the narrow-angle 1.5-liter V-4 from the German Ford Taunus. Horsepower rose by only five (though the rating was likely conservative), but superior torque greatly improved low-speed tractability. Even better, the V-4 acted and sounded like a “real” engine, a welcome change from the quirky, poppity two-stroke.
Known as the Saab Sonett V-4, Saab’s revised sportster was sold in the U.S., though on a very limited basis. One reason is that many showroom browsers found it difficult to take the car seriously. Saab advertising didn’t help, defining “Sonett” as “Swedish for ‘expensive toy.’ You can find it in the toy department.”
Nevertheless, this was a very nimble, fun-to-drive little car, with decent luggage space (but no external access) and passenger room, plus the practicality of front-wheel drive and that rustproof body. Though not as well balanced as the two-stroker, the V-4 was far more “sloggable,” and its 100-mph performance made it far better for a wider range of driving conditions.
Saab would have loved to have sold more Sonett IIs in the U.S., but dumpy looks and competition from established sports cars like MG and Triumph continued to limit demand. Production ended in 1970, but only because Saab had something better: the new Saab Sonett III.
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Saab Sonett III
By most accounts, the report card on the Sonett II and V-4 was, “Tries hard, but could do better.” With the Sonett III, aimed directly at the U.S. market, that’s precisely what Saab did.
Because this remained a specialty model with limited sales potential, and because of Saab’s small size, there was no way to justify the cost of a completely new design. It might have made good technical sense to switch the sports car to the chassis of the then-new 99 sedan, but this wasn’t seriously considered.
Accordingly, the Saab Sonett III, which bowed publicly at the 1970 New York Auto Show, was simply a restyled version of the previous 96-based Saab Sonett II. Most of the design work was done by Italian freelancer Sergio Coggiola (also well known to Swedish rival Volvo), with Saab’s own studio applying final touches. Retaining the Saab Sonett II’s central body, Coggiola lengthened the tail, discarded the ungainly wrapped backlight, and substituted a proper fastback roof with convenient hatch window.
Up front was a longer, smoother nose with conventional hood, pop-up headlamps, and a wide, shallow grille with driving lamps behind its thin horizontal bars. Other changes included rear quarter windows, more aggressively flared wheelarches, a stylish new dashboard, and a choice of two models: standard and luxury. As before, the body was fiberglass, and ASJ in Arlov handled both body production and final assembly.
Also retained were the underframe and front-drive running gear from Saab’s V-4 96 sedan/95 wagon, but a more powerful, 1.7-liter version of the German Ford engine was adopted in deference to tightening American safety and emissions standards. Alas, its 10 more horsepower and nine extra pounds-feet of torque were offset by a considerable gain in curb weight, so the Saab Sonett III was no faster than the Sonett II all out and actually a bit slower off the line. Sales weren’t any better either: just 940 units for the entire calendar year.
Changes were simple and few in subsequent years. The ’71s wore redesigned wheels, and the alloy rims previously offered on the luxury model were eliminated. Saab’s new “corporate” grille motif marked the ’72s, which were also reruns otherwise. The following year brought U.S.-inspired front and rear “impact” bumpers much like those applied to the previous season’s 99 sedans. Of the last, Saab’s own historians said: “No one in the world could say that they did much for the car’s design.”
Unfortunately for Saab, sales were still a long way from viable, and this plus the 96’s planned North American phaseout meant that the Sonett would also vanish after 1974. A successor was considered but would never reach production.
Saab has yet to try another sports car, and may never. It has since found sports sedans -- especially the turbocharged variety -- to be much more profitable. Today, the closest thing to a Saab sports car (which still sounds like a contradiction in terms) is the 900 Turbo convertible -- very able but, as they say, a horse of a different color.